An Introduction to Environmental Injustice and How it Affects Communities

“Environmental justice means that no community should be saddled with more environmental burdens and less environmental benefits than any other” Majora Carter

Throughout time, environmental injustices have infiltrated marginalized communities through issues such as climate change, pollution, water scarcity, etc. Communities have been stripped of the most basic necessities for survival such as clean water, clean food, and safe housing.  Environmental justice is defined as “ the movement to ensure that no community suffers disproportionate environmental burdens or goes without enjoying fair environmental benefits” by Van Jones . Over 40 years of analysis and research by sociologists have outlined the lasting effects of environmental injustice on black and brown communities as well as indigenous communities (Borunda, 2021). Today, environmental injustice adds another layer to the fight against climate change given that marginalized communities reap the repercussions the hardest from climate related disasters (Borunda, 2021).

The Birth of the Environmental Justice Movement

In the late 1970’s Black middle-class residents in Houston Texas, discovered that the city was going to permit the siting of a solid-waste facility in their community (Borunda, 2021). The question that sparked many of the residents was why was it being located there? Furthermore, sociologist Bullard was asked to review the locations of the facilities and sadly discovered that 12 of the city’s 14 industrial waste sites were located in black neighborhoods (Borunda, 2021). This discovery depicted how harmful waste-facilities were likely to reside in places where minority populations lived. Following this discovery, Bullard decided to review other places where solid-waste facilities were located to analyze if there were similar results, and sadly enough it was happening all within America. Benjamin Chavis, a minister, decided to commission his own study nationally and based on Bullards initial research found that the places where waste-disposal sites were located was primarily based on race, this confirmed the initial results that Bullard published (Borunda, 2021). The findings from this research gained popularity and many began pondering the idea of how governments and political officials were allowing such an injustice to occur.

Following this discovery in the late 1980s the Environmental Justice Movement was created as a protest against the placing of the solid- waste facilities in African-American communities (Ranniger, 2020). This protest gained national attention and more than 500 protestors and environmentalists took action to oppose the development of these solid waste facilities  (Ranniger, 2020).  Ultimately the protestors were unsuccessful and the landfills were built and used in marginalized communities. In 1983 a report was issued that supported Bullards findings that waste-disposal sites were likely to be located near black communities in the South(Ranniger, 2020). Over the next decade, in the 1990s the movement was determined to be noticed by government officials so that change could occur. Policy Makers and government officials that were responsible for city regulations began to acknowledge the injustices occurring in their communities. In 1992, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) officially defined environmental injustice and established an office that would oversee and work towards alleviating environmental injustices (Borunda, 2021). In 1994 former President Bill-Clinton issued an executive order calling on all government offices and officials to take into account environmental injustices in all decisions being made within their jurisdictions (Ranniger, 2020).

Following 1994 and the years onward, all people involved in the making of a city and a community are responsible for addressing environmental injustices and should work on implementing projects, programmes, and community activities that alleviate any environmental injustices that affect their citizens. The United States of America is only one prime example of how disparities and local officials and governments overlook the needs and priorities of marginalized communities. Environmental Injustices happen globally and the history of environmental injustices within the United States of America sparked a global conversation and defined the term environmental injustice.

Environmental Injustice and Indigenous Communities in Canada

Indigenous people are not known or considered in many of the conversations that occur surrounding the land they live on (Talaga, 2019). In the past, First Nations were pushed to live in distant areas and be “out of the way” of Canadian settlers, as a result many of them reside in the northern part of Canada and have limited access to health care, education, clean water and working sewage systems (Talaga, 2019). This was promoted through a series of different events of colonization, broken treaties, and the reserve system of the First Nations people. Today, the ways of living of the greater population in the south is suggested to cause environmental injustices towards Indigenous Peoples residing in the north. James Bay Coast located near Canada’s Arctic Ocean can be used to illustrate the injustice happening towards First Nations people in the north (Talaga, 2019).

The James Bay Coast

The James Bay Coast is known as Weeneebeg in western Cree and Wiiniibek in eastern cree and is located on the southernmost edge of Canada’s Arctic Ocean (Talaga, 2019). It is home to nine coastal communities that use the marine environment for transportation and harvesting purposes (Oceans North, n.d.). The Coast is currently under threats from climate change, and increased industrialization such as the  hydroelectric developments in Quebec that alter the amount of freshwater entering during the winter months (Talaga, 2019). This situation affects ice formation and the species that rely on ice. The impacts of climate change on the coast creates a domino effect through the entire marine environment (Talaga, 2019). This is especially impactful on the communities living along the coast because ice that is melting is “breaking” and this causes floods which the people are incapable of handling as they have limited  flood disaster management capacities and very limited areas where people can seek refuge (Talaga, 2019).

Furthermore, communities struggle to continue to keep up with the global warming and pollution that is affecting the freshwater within the Coast. Given that many communities continue to rely on this water as a source of food, the increase in toxic chemicals that feed into the river impact the survival of the marine species the people use for food. Many indigenous people have a history and connection to the land they live on and they are experiencing many adverse effects that are a result of the south’s actions (Talaga, 2019). It is important that Canadians realize that though they may not be directly affected by the effects of their actions on climate change, their actions are causing the deterioration of the indigenious peoples land and need to be changed.

How can you support marginalized communities that are facing environmental injustices?:

  1. Educate yourself: Talk to people, locals, and policy makers that are responsible for overseeing cities and learn from them but also inquire what actions are being taken to eradicate it within your community
  2. Amplify the voices within your community that is being silenced this will guarantee that no group/ community is being looked over
  3. Vote for individuals that support the eradication of environmental injustice and are putting emphasis on problems that are affecting marginalized communities

References

Borunda, A. (2021, February 24). The origins of environmental justice—and why it’s finally getting the attention it deserves. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/article/environmental-justice-origins-why-finally-getting-the-attention-it-deserves

History of Environmental Justice | Sierra Club. (n.d.). Retrieved July 18, 2022, from https://www.sierraclub.org/environmental-justice/history-environmental-justice

James Bay/ Weeneebeg/ Wiiniibek – Where We Work – Oceans North. (n.d.). Retrieved July 18, 2022, from https://www.oceansnorth.org/en/where-we-work/james-bay-weeneebeg-wiiniibek/

Northern Ontario communities have been living with eco-anxiety for decades | The Star. (n.d.). Retrieved July 18, 2022, from https://projects.thestar.com/climate-change-canada/ontario-eco-anxiety/

Ranniger, G. (2020, June 1). The Father of Environmental Justice – EHN. https://www.ehn.org/environmental-justice-2646185608/the-father-of-environmental-justice

Stopping Climate Injustice – Resilience. (n.d.). Retrieved July 17, 2022, from https://www.resilience.org/stories/2017-06-07/stopping-climate-injustice/

Talaga, T. (2019, July 8). Northern Ontario communities have been living with eco-anxiety for decades | The Star. https://projects.thestar.com/climate-change-canada/ontario-eco-anxiety/

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